Dolch words are the list of 220 words which researcher Edward W. Dolch published in his book “Problems in Reading” in 1948. Dolch established which words appeared most frequently in children’s reading books. Around fifty to seventy-five percent of the words in any piece of text, whether intended for adults or children, will consist of words from the Dolch word list. Dolch believed that learning to recognize these words by sight would speed up children’s reading fluency.
Many of the words on the Dolch list are not decodable. This means that they cannot be easily ‘sounded out’ using phonetic clues. For example, ‘cat’ is a phonically regular word which is easy to decode, but the word ‘there’ does not follow the most common rules of phonics, which makes it difficult to decode. Dolch words are therefore usually taught as ‘sight words’. This means that the learner will be taught to recognize the word as a whole rather than breaking it down and decoding it.
Many schools teach the Dolch words using flashcards. The teacher or parent will take a pile of cards, each with a Dolch word on. They will show the cards one at a time to the learner, saying each word aloud. Next, the learner will be asked to recall the words as they are shown one by one. Many children find this quite stressful as it is testing their knowledge and they may feel a sense of failure when they are unable to remember the correct response.
There are lots of ways to make Dolch word learning easier for the child (or an adult learning to read or learning English for the first time).
- Only teach a few Dolch words at a time. To begin with, it’s a good idea to teach just two words so that the learner can easily tell them apart and learn to recognize them, then maybe add a new word each day provided the learner is keeping up.
- Only ‘test’ the learner if you are quite sure they already know the words, to give them every chance to be successful rather than a failure.
- If the learner can already read some words, use the Dolch words in sentences or short phrases, e.g. “the cat is over there” instead of just using the words in isolation.
- Have the learner practice writing the words as well as just reading them. This gives variety and will also help to develop spelling skills.
- Use games to teach the Dolch words instead of just reading and writing.
Using games can really make learning the Dolch words into a fun activity instead of a boring chore. You could make two sets of flashcards so that the words can be matched up into pairs. This could be developed into a snap game or a memory game where the cards are placed face down and players take it in turn to look at two cards and see if they can find a match. If the words match, the player keeps the cards and has another go. When a child is learning the words, an adult may have to read the words aloud at first.